The Series: 5/5
The basic idea behind nature documentaries hasn't changed much since the 1960s, when the immensely popular "Wild Kingdom" TV show began bringing the wonders of the planet into the dwellings of Earth's most advanced, but largely sheltered, species.
"Go somewhere I'd never go and show me something amazing."
Over the decades this daunting task of capturing nature at its most natural and awe-inspiring for consumption in our living rooms has been facilitated by improved image gathering technologies and techniques, but this has also increased expectations around the types of images documentarians should be able to get. These days few of us are impressed by the extreme telephoto shot taken from a safe and proper distance, especially not after a film like "Winged Migration", which put us in the middle of the lives and habitats of its avian subjects, and a TV series like "Planet Earth", which ventured to places and showed us things we would otherwise never see. Indeed, the highly praised "Planet Earth" has become the quintessential documentary of the natural world, made possible by the critical combination of advanced and sometimes groundbreaking technical quality and depth and uniqueness of content.
With "Planet Earth" being such an all-around success, it's only natural that the BBC and the Discovery Channel - drawing on the talents of the BBC Natural History Unit of filmmakers - would look for a repeat experience. Though "Nature's Most Amazing Events", a six-part series that premiered on the Discovery Channel on May 29th, doesn't necessarily have the scope of its predecessor, its stricter thematic focus on a critical natural event in one region, its affect on the surrounding animal species, and its current disposition in light of any environmental factors makes for a program that is no less engaging. Though some episodes are more novel than others, even the now familiar lions on the Serengeti maintain interest due to some skillful storytelling and consistent adherence to the "event" theme. With today's increasing concerns about climate change, the content can be particularly germane, though anyone leary of didactic, environmental messages can rest easy. The tone, once again coming by way of David Attenborough, is largely disinterested, offering information about any environmental changes mostly as points of reference and history. Of course there is an underlying, conservation message, but that really comes from letting the beauty and wonder of the natural world speak for itself.
"Nature's Most Amazing Events" on Blu-Ray includes all six episodes that aired on Discovery Channel. Appended to each episode is a 10-minute behind-the-scenes video diary that highlights a particular aspect of the episode's filmmaking effort.
Episode 1: The Great Melt (59m25s): The end of winter in the Arctic results in the thawing of its four million square mile ice sheet. While animals likes arctic foxes, narwhals and flocks of birds begin to thrive, the polar bear begins to struggle.
The video diary looks at the filmmaking team's six-week effort to record the narwhals, a creature notorious for its elusiveness.
Episode 2: The Great Salmon Run (59m19s): The Pacific salmons' months-long journey from the ocean to the fresh water streams of their birth becomes a life sustaining event for a variety of creatures, most notably the grizzly bear.
The video diary shows how filmmaker Jeff Turner recorded bears catching salmon under water, using a combination of new camera technology and his years of experience working around grizzly bears.
Episode 3: The Great Migration (59m04s): As grazing wildebeests follow the seasonal rains around East Africa's Serengeti Plain, the lions in the Ndutua area in the south have to deal with their months-long absence. Their fate is further jeopardized by the area's lack of water and potential fires.
The video diary documents how filmmaker Owen Newman followed one particular pride of lions over seven months, becoming particularly invested in the story of one female lion cub.
Episode 4: The Great Tide (59m05s): Cold ocean currents along the South African coast drive shoals of sardines north, into the eager mouths of a variety of creatures. The convergence of dolphins, sharks, Bryde's whales, gannet birds and seals for the great sardine run represents "the greatest gathering of predators on the planet."
The video diary follows the film crew, which includes Didier Noirot, a former cameraman for Jacques Cousteau, as it tries to capture the culminating predatory feeding frenzy. The mission, taking over two years, proved particularly challenging as the sardine run is not a guaranteed event and unpredictable when it finally does occur.
Episode 5: The Great Flood (59m23s): An eight-month dry season in Africa's Kalahari Desert offers one source of respite - the flooding of the Okavango Delta from northern rains in Angola. It turns a harsh desert landscape into a miraculous wetland oasis primed for the feeding and breeding of a whole host of wildlife.
The video diary shows how the resourceful filmmakers set out to record - in intimate detail - the flood waters as they slowly seeped their way into the area's desert sands.
Episode 6: The Great Feast (59m08s): The coldest Alaskan winter on record gives way to a summer bloom of phytoplankton so dense it exceeds the amount of vegetation found in the Amazon rainforest. The microscopic plant life will catalyze the life cycles of everything from the lowly barnacle to the majestic humpback whale, which will have traveled over 3,000 miles in order to feed on millions of migrating Pacific herring.
The video diary follows cameramen Shane Moore and David Reichert as they record the multi-predator herring feed, and shows the circumstances leading up to one of the most awesome and surprising images of the series.
Video Quality: 4/5
The series is accurately framed at 1.78:1 and presented in 1080i with the VC-1 codec. I was a little disappointed in the overall sharpness and detail of the images, though my assumption is the limitations are a result of the types of high definition video cameras used. The variety of textures on display - everything from fur to feathers - just didn't have the palpable quality I've seen in the best high definition images. There was also visible noise in fine pattern areas and banding on occasion; color, contrast and black levels looked spot-on however. Though the transfer ultimately doesn't have the same jaw-dropping quality as its content, the latter is so rich and engaging that viewers will no doubt forget a handful of technical shortcomings.
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
The 448 kbps Dolby Digital Stereo track is suprisingly expansive at times, making it easy to forget this is a strictly two-channel mix. Though Attenborough's narration dominates from its centered placement, strategic use of field audio reveals the extent of an impressively broad soundstage. LFE is absent, but the track shows good depth and fullness in the lower registers.
Special Features: 3/5
Though there are no standalone supplements, the video diaries appended to each episode offer a fascinating look behind the scenes of this massive documentary effort. Though somewhat brief at about 10 minutes each, they are nonetheless highly entertaining and make the already amazing footage that much more awe-inspiring by revealing the resourcefulness and talent that went into their acquisition.
The Series: 5/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Special Features: 3/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4/5
An impressive and inspiring six-part nature documentary from the BBC Natural History Unit, the team behind the critically lauded "Planet Earth" series, gets a fine technical presentation. Though there are no standalone supplements, six behind-the-scenes video diaries for each episode prove to be as interesting and entertaining as the primary content. Recommended.